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- Tales of Chinatown - 4/57 -

throughout the interview at the visitor's elbow, addressed him rapidly in Chinese. He nodded his head and led the way through a second doorway. Closing this, he opened a third and ushered Mr. Hampden into a room which nearly caused the latter to gasp with astonishment.

One who had blundered from Whitechapel into the Khan Khalil, who had been transported upon a magic carpet from a tube station to the Taj Mahal, of dropped suddenly upon Lebanon hills to find himself looking down upon the pearly domes and jewelled gardens of Damascus, could not well have been more surprised. This great treasure-house of old Huang Chow was one of Chinatown's secrets-- a secret shared only by those whose commercial interests were identical with the interests of Huang Chow.

The place was artificially lighted by lamps which themselves were beautiful objects of art, and which swung from the massive beams of the ceiling. The floor of the warehouse, which was partly of stone, was covered with thick matting, and spread upon it were rugs and carpets of Karadagh, Kermanshah, Sultan-abad, and Khorassan, with lesser-known loomings of almost equal beauty. Skins of rare beasts overlay the divans. Furniture of ivory, of ebony and lemonwood, preciously inlaid, gave to the place an air of cunning confusion. There were tall cabinets, there were caskets and chests of exquisite lacquer and enamel, loot of an emperor's palace; robes heavy with gold; slippers studded with jewels; strange carven ivories; glittering weapons; pots, jars, and bowls, as delicate and as fragile as the petals of a lily.

Last, but not least, sitting cross-legged upon a low couch, was old Huang Chow, smoking a great curved pipe, and peering half blindly across the place through large horn-rimmed spectacles. This couch was set immediately beside a wide ascending staircase, richly carpeted, and on the other side of the staircase, in a corresponding recess, upon a gilded trestle carved to represent the four claws of a dragon, rested perhaps the strangest exhibit of that strange collection--a Chinese coffin of exquisite workmanship.

The boy retired, and Mr. Hampden found himself alone with Huang Chow. No word had been exchanged between master and servant, but:

"Good morning, Mr. Hampden," said the Chinaman in a high, thin voice. "Please be seated. It is from Mr. Isaacs you come?"



Dear Chief Inspector,--Following your instructions I returned and interviewed the prisoner Poland in his cell. I took the line which you had suggested, pointing out to him that he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by keeping silent.

"Answer my questions," I said, "and you can walk straight out. Otherwise, you'll be up before the magistrate, and on your record alone it will mean a holiday which you probably don't want."

He was very truculent, but I got him in a good humour at last, and he admitted that he had been cooperating with the dead man, Cohen, in an attempt to burgle the house of Huang Chow. His reluctance to go into details seemed to be due rather to fear of Huang Chow than to fear of the law, and I presently gathered that he regarded Huang as responsible for the death not only of Cohen, but also of the Chinaman who was hauled out of the river about three weeks ago, as you well remember. The post-mortem showed that he had died of some kind of poisoning, and when we saw Cohen in the mortuary, his swollen appearance struck me as being very similar to that of the Chinaman. (See my report dated 31st ultimo.)

He finally agreed to talk if I would promise that he should not be charged and that his name should never be mentioned to anyone in connection with what he might tell me. I promised him that outside the ordinary official routine I would respect his request, and he told me some very curious things, which no doubt have a bearing on the case.

For instance, he had discovered--I don't know in what way--that the dead Chinaman, whose name was Pi Lung, had been in negotiation with Huang Chow for some sort of job in his warehouse. Poland had seen the man talking to Huang's daughter, at the end of the alley which leads to the place. He seemed to attach extraordinary importance to this fact. At last:

"I'll tell you what it is," he said. "That Chink was a stranger to Limehouse; I can swear to it. He was a gent of his hands; I reckon they've got 'em in China as well as here. He went out for the old boy's money-box, and finished like Cohen finished."

"Make your meaning clearer," I said.

"My meaning's this: Old Huang Chow is the biggest dealer in stolen and smuggled valuables from overseas we've got in London. He's something else as well; he's a big swell in China. But here's the point. He's got business with buyers all over London, and they have to pay cash--no checks. He doesn't bank it: I've proved that. He's got it in gold, or diamonds, or something, being wise to present conditions, hidden there in the house. Pi Lung was after his hoard. He didn't get it. Cohen and me was after it. Where's Cohen?"

I agreed that it looked very suspicious, and presently:

"When I went in with Cohen," continued Poland, "I knew one thing he didn't know--a short cut into the warehouse. He's been playing pretty-like with Lala, old Huang's daughter, and it's my belief that he knew where the store was hidden; but he never told me. We knew there were special men on duty, and we'd arranged that I was to give a signal when the patrol had passed. Cohen all the time had planned to double on me. While I was watching down on the Causeway end he climbed up and got in through the skylight I'd shown him. When I got there he was missing, but the skylight was open. I started off after him."

Then Poland clutched me, and his fright was very real.

"I heard a shriek like nothing I ever heard in my life. I saw a light shine through the trap, and then I heard a sort of moaning. Last, I heard a bang, and the light went out. I staggered down the passage half silly, started to run, and ran straight into the arms of two coppers."

This evidence I thought was conclusive, and in accordance with your instructions I proceeded to Mr. Isaacs in Dover Street. He didn't seem too pleased at my suggestion, but when I pointed out to him that one good turn deserved another, he agreed to give me an introduction to Huang Chow.

I adopted a very simple disguise, just altering my complexion and sticking on a moustache with spirit gum, hair by hair, and trimming it down military fashion. Everything ran smoothly, and I seemed to make a fairly favourable impression upon Lala Huang, the Chinaman's daughter, who evidently interviews prospective customers before they are admitted to the warehouse.

She is a Eurasian and extremely good looking. But when I found myself in the room where old Huang keeps his treasures, I really thought I was dreaming. It's a collection that must be worth thousands. He showed me snuff-bottles, cut out of gems, and with a little opening no bigger than the hole in a pipe-stem, but with wonderful paintings done inside the bottles. He'd got a model of a pagoda made out of human teeth, and a big golden rug woven from the hair of Circassian slave girls. Excuse this, Chief Inspector; I know it is what you call the romantic stuff; but I think it would have impressed you if you had seen it.

Anyway, I bought a little enamelled box, in accordance with Mr. Isaacs's instructions, although whether I succeeded in convincing Huang Chow that I knew anything about the matter is more than doubtful. He got up from a sort of throne he sits on, and led the way up a broad staircase to a private room above.

"Of course, you have brought the cash, Mr. Hampden?" he said.

He speaks quite faultless English. He walked up three steps to a sort of raised writing-table in this upstairs room, and I counted out the money to him. When he sat at the table he faced toward the room, and I couldn't help thinking that, in his horn-rimmed spectacles, he looked like some old magistrate. He explained that he would pack the purchase for me, but that I must personally take it away. And:

"You understand," said he, "that you bought it from a gentleman who had purchased it abroad."

I said I quite understood. He bowed me out very politely, and presently I found myself back in the office with Lala Huang.

She seemed quite disposed to talk, and I chatted with her while the box was being packed for me to take away. I knew I must make good use of my time, but you have never given me a job I liked less. I mean, there is something very appealing about her, and I hated to think that I was playing a double game. However, without actually agreeing to see me again, she told me enough to enable me to meet her "accidentally," if I wanted to. Therefore, I am going to look out for her this evening, and probably take her to a picture palace, or somewhere where we can have a quiet talk. She seems to be fancy free, and for some reason I feel sorry for the girl. I don't altogether like the job, but I hope to justify your faith in me, Chief.

I will prepare my official report this evening when I return.

Yours obediently,--JOHN DURHAM.



Tales of Chinatown - 4/57

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